Ultimately, it was the former, with Jamie Ward's late inswinging free-kick, which curled inside Andy Lonergan's far post ensuring justice was done.
The 86th-minute goal stood despite Preston protests that their former striker Richard Cresswell was offside and may have distracted Lonergan as he lunged for the ball.
Earning his stripes: Jamie Ward was again on target for Sheffield United
Although Preston's dogged defending made it a harsh outcome for Sean St Ledger on a commanding return from Middlesbrough, Alan Irvine's side lacked ambition.
So they couldn't complain about the misadventure that befell them when Ward's free-kick from the left, adroitly angled for a touch by an on-rushing forward, found the net unaided.
Sheffield United manager Kevin Blackwell said: 'We work on that set play because it is very difficult for the keeper.
'You have to win football matches in lots of different ways and we did that.
'We played some terrific stuff at times, some scrappy stuff and some ugly stuff. But we got there, and rightly so.'
It looked as if United would pay for Henri Camara's first-half miss as they ran out of ideas and inspiration.
Irvine said: 'It was a terrific delivery from Ward but the lads are adamant it wasn't a free-kick in the first place for the goal and Cresswell looks offside on the replay. I thought we'd earned a point.'
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